An increase in cases of meningococcal disease in the Southland prompted local health officials Thursday to urge at-risk residents — including gay and bisexual men — to get vaccinated against the often fatal infection, which attacks the brain.

The California Department of Public Health reported an increase in cases of meningococcal disease in Southern California, particularly in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

The cluster of cases in the last several months has disproportionately affected men who have sex with men, officials said.

“No cases of meningococcal disease have been reported in San Diego this year,” Dr. Wilma Wooten, the county public health officer said. “However, as a precaution, we are recommending meningococcal vaccination for all gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men, as well as for all persons with HIV infection.”

An advisory about the disease was issued today by the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency. Health officials in Los Angeles and Orange counties have also issued advisories.

Meningococcal disease is caused by Neisseria meningitidis bacteria, which are spread through close contact, such as living in close quarters, kissing, or sharing drinking glasses, eating utensils, cigarettes or pipes, or water bottles.

It is a serious infection that can cause brain infection and/or blood infection, and can lead to death, Wooten said.

Symptoms of meningococcal disease may include fever, intense headache, lethargy, stiff neck and/or a rash that does not blanch under pressure. Anyone with potential exposure who develops any of these symptoms should immediately contact a healthcare provider or emergency room for an evaluation for possible meningococcal disease.

The disease can progress very rapidly, and even with appropriate treatment, the disease carries a high risk of death or long-term complications. Higher risk for meningococcal disease in gay and bisexual men has been associated with one or more of the following: regularly visiting crowded venues such as bars, parties, etc., regularly having close or intimate contact with multiple partners, smoking or illicit drug use, and HIV positive status.

–City News Service